Despite the appearance of one unlikely coincidence too many,
"Monster's Ball" shares honors with Todd Field's "In the
Bedroom" as the most emotionally touching films of the year.
Directed in an appropriately restrained manner by Marc Forster
with lead character Bill Bob Thornton about as talkative as he
was as the title character in Joel Coen's "The Man Who Wasn't
There," "Monster's Ball" is not only a moving family drama of
anger and redemption but a resonant statement on a society
grounded in hatred and racism.
"Monster's Ball" takes place in the Deep South (actually filmed
in the New Orleans area including shots of the infamous Angola
Penitentiary in Angola). A cop killer, Lawrence Musgrove (Sean
Combs), is to be executed in a monster's ball, that is, following a
ceremony that is without the presence of a preacher or a lawyer.
He is visited on his final afternoon by his chain-smoking wife,
Leticia (Halle Berry) and his 189-pound pre-teen boy, Tyrell
(Coronji Calhoun). When Sonny Grotowski (Heath Ledger), the
son of fellow corrections officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob
Thornton) throws up during the prisoner's last mile, he is beaten
and called a pussy by his dad--who seems to have absorbed the
racism and hatred of his aging father, Buck (Peter Boyle). After
both the 11-year-old Tyrell and the 20-something Sonny die
violently at about the same time, Hank forms an unlikely bond
with the condemned prisoner's widow, Leticia.
What gives the film its claim to artistic prominence is
the way that both Hank and Leticia overcome their mistrust, fear,
and racist feelings. There is no single moment that the
transformation takes place. Under Forster's restrained direction,
the unhappy couple take incremental steps, unencumbered by
any trace of a soap-opera score, to emerge as human beings
with an optimistic future. Peter Boyle's character Buck, who
merits some claim for our sympathy based on his physical
affliction (he is dependent on an oxygen cannister), comes
across as a Stone Age remnant of the old south, using the "n"
word to describe his black neighbors, making derogatory remarks
on his departed wife, and illustrating graphically the way his
malicious apple does not fall far from his son's nasty tree. The
36-year- old Halle Berry, who reportedly received a cool
million-dollar bonus for briefly exposing her top in Dominic Seca's
"Swordfish," turns in a role that bares all-- combining the gritty
portrayal of a dope fiend in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" with a
touching characterization as a reforming crack addict in Stephen
Gyllenhaal's drama, "Losing Isaiah." Berry runs the emotional
gamut wonderfully from a self-hating casualty of racism to a more
independent and loving person in the hands of a man who cares.
Almost needless to say Billy Bob Thornton, best known as a man
who is hardly there (mentally retarded in "Sling Blade" and
reticent ex-jailer here), centers Milo Addica and Will Rokos's
script--a hangdog loser who recovers his humanity.
It's difficult to believe that the man who helmed the small and
forgettable feature "Everything Put Together" could make such a
creative surge this time around, but credit should be given to
Roberto Schaefer, Forster's regular cinematographer, for his
wide-screen lensing of this sincere, moving tale.
Copyright © 2001 Harvey Karten